Governor’s western Mass. director hears rural concerns

  • Leyden Selectman Lance Fritz, right, speaks to Patrick Carnevale, left, director of the governor’s western Massachusetts office, who met with town officials and residents at Leyden Town Hall on Tuesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Patrick Carnevale, right, director of the governor’s western Massachusetts office, met with town officials and residents at Leyden Town Hall on Tuesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Patrick Carnevale, third from right, director of the governor’s western Massachusetts office, met with town officials and residents at Leyden Town Hall on Tuesday. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/25/2019 8:18:37 PM

LEYDEN — The governor’s office asked to hear about rural towns’ problems, and got an earful on school funding and the politics of regional school districts.

Patrick Carnevale, director of the governor’s western Massachusetts office in Springfield, visited Leyden Town Hall Tuesday afternoon to hear from town officials and residents. The conversation touched on the difficulties of regionalizing services, like Leyden’s failed attempt this spring to contract with the Greenfield Fire Department, and the double bind of “unfunded mandates” that towns are in when costs associated with municipal services increase.

But most of the talk was about the problems that Leyden, Bernardston, Northfield and Warwick have been having with the Pioneer Valley Regional School District. Most recently, Pioneer’s fiscal year 2020 budget failed when three of the four towns voted against it last week, forcing the district into a state-controlled provisional budget.

“This is truly the worst year we’ve been through,” Leyden Selectman Jeff Neipp told Carnevale.

“It’s the first time we’ve had the four towns agree on anything,” said Bernardston Selectman Bob Raymond, the only non-Leyden town official at the Tuesday meeting with Carnevale.

Last spring, Pioneer discovered a financial deficit on its books worth about $450,000. The cause of the deficit, School Committee members and school administrators agree, was not an isolated case of mismanagement, but that the district’s business model has become unsustainable as enrollment has declined.

Since then, Pioneer has been seeking ways to cut costs and increase revenue, which will in effect reduce the per-pupil cost. The most controversial ideas have been school closures, with Leyden’s Pearl Rhodes Elementary School seeing its last year of schoolchildren. A proposal to close Warwick Community School, the second smallest school in the Pioneer district after Pearl Rhodes, was put to a vote twice this spring and rejected both times.

“I think, for the viability of this district, Warwick Community School needs to close,” Neipp said. “Everybody knows it, but no one really wants to commit themselves to it.”

Complicating the matter is that Pioneer’s finances are under state oversight, due to a legal deal the district made so that it could cover its deficit by borrowing money.

Town officials say that, given the district’s situation, the state should be giving stronger guidance; and that the overseer, Rick Kingsley, should be more mindful of the towns’ finances and should have taken stronger positions on issues like the school closures.

“I think we should fire the guy,” Neipp said.

“I think there needs to be some kind of intervention,” Leyden Municipal Assistant Michelle Giarusso said.

But, Carnevale said, state intervention is a touchy subject in Massachusetts. Historically, he said, towns have disliked strong guidelines over how municipal services should be carried out.

“We don’t want to get into that because that’s not the way Massachusetts has ever operated, no matter who the governor and lieutenant governor are,” Carnevale said. “Cities and towns are independent.”

For what it’s worth, Pioneer’s problems are not unique. Enrollment is dropping across the board, Carnevale said, consistent with declining birth rates.

“There are empty seats in Boston schools as well,” Carnevale said. “This is the way I think you’re going to see it for at least the next 10 or 15 years.”

The state’s school funding system is based primarily on enrollment. So when enrollment drops, the state’s contribution to local education funding doesn’t increase in step with schools’ expenses.

That formula hasn’t been revised since 1993, Carnevale said, and state lawmakers recognize a need to change it.

“The house, the senate and the governor are all saying, ‘We need more money for cities and towns to have a better education for our kids,’” Carnevale said. “How that is going to be funded, I can’t tell you. No one can tell you.”

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.


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